“Have you ever seen a woman’s real thighs on television before?” is the question that Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate asked after the last episode of HBO’s “Girls,” which saw Lena Dunham’s Hannah carry on a two-day affair with a character played by Patrick Wilson in what was essentially a bottle-episode. The wife and I both adore “Girls,” but her obsession with it transcends that of most men for reasons that I see echoed throughout the internet: It’s not just because it’s a clever, brilliantly written series splattered with authentic and disquieting moments pertaining to the “modern twenty-something experience in Brooklyn.” It’s because of Dunham’s courageousness. She fearlessly undresses, and each week, she shows America what a “real” body looks like. We’re not used to that.
Most of the men — critics and not — who talk about “Girls” fall into one of two camps: There are the assholes and douchebags who populate a lot of Internet comments sections, who use the word “c*nt” frequently, and who seem to be doing their damndest to hurl as big a fat-shaming insult as possible at Dunham. They are less interested in talking about the storylines and relationship dynamics of “Girls” and more interested in talking about how “fat” and “disgusting” Lena Dunham looks naked. On the other side, most of the more respectful men ignore commenting on the Dunham’s nudity or body type, except to extol Dunham’s “bravery,” and focus more on the themes and characters of “Girls.” That is probably the smart move because it keeps them from inadvertently sticking their foot in their mouths.
But there is a silent subsection of what I would hope are progressive men (because I include myself among them) who are hesitant to say what we really think, and that is this (I say, as I inadvertently stick my foot in my mouth):
Lena Dunham’s nudity makes me uncomfortable.
Now before you get out the pitchforks and burn me in effigy, hear me out a moment because this is not an easy thing for me to admit. I don’t want to find it uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not Lena Dunham’s fault that it makes me feel that way.
A refrain we often hear is that Hollywood, and fashion magazines, and the news media and Photoshop and airbrushing have created unrealistic expectations for women. It’s damaging to self-esteem; it leads to insecurity, eating disorders, and body-image issues. It’s all true, but the flip-side is also true for men: The women that we are exposed to come from the same places, which has also given us unrealistic expectations of what a woman should look like. It is sh*tty, and it is unfair, but in our world, the closest we get to Lena Dunham is Hollywood’s idea of “full figured”:
Of course, there are some women who don’t fall into Hollywood’s definition of what is acceptable weight-wise — Melissa McCarthy, for instance, or many of the females we see on reality television — but their weight is often played for laughs, and we never see them naked. All of which is to say: Men have a sh*tty, skewed perception of what women should look like in movies and television, and seeing a Lena Dunham play topless ping-pong is a relatively novel visual experience for us.
But it is not disgusting, and it is not unpleasant — in fact, I think Lena Dunham is an attractive woman — but it can be uncomfortable while we adjust our expectations. However, what I loved about this week’s episode of “Girls” is how Dunham played that into her narrative favor. If a guy who looks like Patrick Wilson sleeps with a woman who looks like Lena Dunham, Hollywood has conditioned me to perceive it in a certain way: I expect that a shoe will drop, that Wilson’s character will reveal himself as a giant douchebag playing a cruel joke. What I don’t expect is for Dunham’s character to not only be the agressor, but to control the sexual dynamic. When Wilson said to Dunham’s character, “I want you to make me come,” I have been conditioned to believe that she would be eager to please, not that she would flip it and say, “I want you to make me come.” From a story standpoint, that was mind blowing.
That’s what’s so brilliant about “Girls” in its depiction of female sexuality: It challenges that paradigm. It tells our expectations to go f*ck themselves. No, I am not used to seeing the business of a naked woman putting her unflattering skort back on and the messiness that entails, but the more men are exposed to it, the less inclined we are to expect that every naked woman should look like an airbrushed Kate Upton. It’s not only important that women aren’t saddled with unrealistic expectations of what a human body should look like; it’s also important than men don’t develop those same expectations. Lena Dunham is obliterating our presumptions, and if it makes me — or other men — feel a little uncomfortable, well, having to watch a woman who doesn’t look like Jessica Alba f*ck other dudes in the context of a hilarious, thought-provoking television series is a small — honestly, the smallest — price to pay.